Charlie Chan (series)

Charlie Chan (series)

Synopsis of Movie

“A thousand pardons…”

Charlie Chan stands out from the many detectives populating the mystery film world because he is a truly a class act. This Chinese-American sleuth had flawless deduction skills that ensured he always got his man in the end, and he always cut a stylish figure in his neatly-cut suit. More importantly, he also had a sharp but subtle sense of humor that expressed itself in a series of witty sayings that sounded like ancient Chinese proverbs. The character enjoyed great popularity in a series of films in the 1930’s and 1940’s as talented actors like Warner Oland and Sidney Toler made him a fixture at the movie theaters. In the process, Charlie Chan became one of the most famous and beloved film detectives of all time.

The character of Charlie Chan was invented by Ohio novelist Earl Derr Biggers. He got the inspiration for Chan when he read of the adventures of a Chinese detective in a newspaper while vacationing in Honolulu. He created the character for the 1925 novel House Without A Key, and when it became an overnight success, Biggers wrote another five novels built around the Chan character. All of these novels would be adapted into Charlie Chan films except for Keeper Of The Keys, which became a Broadway play.

Since the Chan character was so successful in print, it was inevitable that he would find his way into a film adaptation. The character first appeared on screen in a 1925 adaptation of House Without A Key. Played by actor George Kuwa, Chan was limited to a small role and did not make much of an impression. The character also appeared in The Chinese Parrot and Behind That Curtain. As before, the character was limited to a small role and was interpreted by new actors each time (Kamiyama Sojin and E.L. Parks, respectively).

However, the idea of Charlie Chan as a film character took off when Swedish character actor Warner Oland was chosen to play the character in 1931’s Charlie Chan Carries On. Oland had already distinguished himself by playing Al Jolson’s cantor father in The Jazz Singer and the villainous Fu Manchu in a series of films starting with The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu. Charlie Chan Carries On depicted Oland ‘carrying on’ for a Scotland Yard detective when he is injured during an investigation, thus allowing the Chan character to play a more up-front role than in previous adaptations.

Oland’s slick, witty interpretation of the character clicked with audiences and made Charlie Chan Carries On a big hit. The Black Camel was the next screen outing for Chan, boasting a screenplay by Earl Derr Biggers himself. It focused on Chan trying to solve the murder of an actress visiting Hawaii. Clues related to her murder also link to an unsolved murder from three years ago, and Chan manages to solve both cases before the story ends. The film also featured legendary horror actor Bela Lugosi as a gypsy-like psychic who fancies himself as a rival to Chan.

The Black Camel was another hit and led to Oland being signed on for a long-term Charlie Chan film series. Oland would appear in another 14 films, all of which followed a fairly standard plotline: Charlie Chan happens upon a mysterious murder in an exotic locale like London or Egypt and sets out to solve it in patient but effective style. Along the way, the always-cool detective displays his wit through a series of humorous aphorisms like “Hasty conclusion like hole in water, easy to make,” and “Murder without bloodstain like Amos without Andy – most unusual.” These films also benefited from strong supporting casts featuring familiar faces like Boris Karloff, Leo G. Carroll, and Lionel Atwill.

The already-fun Chan series became even more entertaining when the character of #1 Son was introduced in 1935’s Charlie Chan in Paris. He was Chan’s son, a young man who was much more Americanized than his father and eager to prove himself in the detective department. Needless to say, the friction he created with his more famous father added some delightful humor to the series. This character was played by Keye Luke, who became one of the most successful Chinese-American character actors and would later become internationally famous in the role of Master Po on the cult television series Kung Fu.

Warner Oland continued to play the role until he passed away from pneumonia in 1938. His last Chan film was Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo. However, the Charlie Chan role was soon recreated by Sidney Toler in Charlie Chan in Honolulu. In this case, Chan solves the murder of a man killed on a freighter, helpped by another new addition to the series, #2 Son (played by Victor Sen Yung). Meanwhile, Chan’s pregnant daughter is due to give birth to #1 Grandson at any time. The film deftly blended comedy and mystery, and Toler’s harder-edged interpretation of Chan helped him make a distinct impression on viewers. It became a hit and led to further Toler-led Charlie Chan films.

Sidney Toler would play Charlie Chan in 10 more films for 20th Century Fox. One of the finest Toler entries was Charlie Chan at Treasure Island, the favorite of many a Charlie Chan fanatic. In it, Chan enlists the help of Rhadini, a mysterious magician played by Cesar Romero, to solve the murder of a friend who has been made to appear as if he has committed suicide. The film benefited from a tight script and a genuinely surprising ending, plus some nifty footage of the 1939 World’s Fair.

After 1942’s Castle in the Desert, 20th Century Fox sold the rights for the Charlie Chan series to low-budget film specialists Monogram Studios. Sidney Toler resumed the Charlie Chan role for Monogram’s first entry, 1944’s Charlie Chan in the Secret Service. This film depicts Chan working for the Secret Service, also introducing #3 Son (Benson Fong) and Birmingham Brown, a perpetually-frightened cab driver played by African-American character actor Mantan Moreland. Birmingham eventually became a regular in the series as Chan’s chauffeur.

When Sidney Toler died of cancer in 1947, Roland Winters stepped in to play the Chan role in The Chinese Ring. He would play Chan in another five films, the last being The Sky Dragon in 1949. Since then, the Charlie Chan character has lived on in a number of forms. First up was 1950’s television series called The Adventures of Charlie Chan, featuring J. Carrol Naish as the famous sleuth. Former “#1 Son” Keye Luke later lent his voice to the character for a 1970’s Saturday morning cartoon called The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan.

Charlie Chan was also revived for a 1979 television film, The Return Of Charlie Chan, and parodied in a 1981 feature film comedy called Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen. There have not been any further Charlie Chan films since this time, but the classic Charlie Chan films continue to live on through home video and frequent appearances on television. Mystery fans can rest assured that Charlie Chan will always live on as an important and popular part of the mystery genre.

Movie Release History

1925 - The House Without a Key
1931 - Charlie Chan Carries On
1931 - The Black Camel
1935 - Charlie Chan in Paris
1938 - Charlie Chan in Honolulu
1939 - Charlie Chan at Treasure Island
1942 - Castle in the Desert
1944 - Charlie Chan in the Secret Service
1947 - The Chinese Ring
1949 - The Sky Dragon
1981 - Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen

Movie Sub Categories


Movie Studio

20th Century Fox, Monogram


Warner Oland (1931-1938) Charlie Chan
Sidney Toler (1938-1947) Charlie Chan
Roland Winters (1947-1949) Charlie Chan
Keye Luke #1 Son
Victor Sen Yung #2 Son
Benson Fong #3 Son
Mantan Moreland Birmingham Brown

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